It’s no longer possible to accuse U.S. President Donald Trump of inconsistency, at least on Syria. In December, before taking office, he said Washington should stop trying to topple regimes; he was referring to Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose removal had become a cornerstone of Barack Obama’s Mideast policy.
And last month, Trump made perhaps his most significant decision to date – to stop aiding the Syrian militias fighting Assad. On Wednesday, The Washington Post said this decision provided Russia with final confirmation that it owns Syria. And not only Russia. Iran is also very happy with Trump’s decision to pull the rug out from under the dozens of militias still fighting Assad.
The militias themselves have long known that Washington doesn’t see them as significant forces worth cultivating, especially after Assad took Aleppo from them last year. That conquest predictably proved a strategic turning point both on the battlefield and in diplomatic efforts to secure an agreement ending the war.
Some militias, like the Free Syrian Army units fighting in Turkey’s “service” in northern Syria, have lost their national mission and effectively become mercenaries tasked with securing other countries’ interests, not necessarily fighting Assad. Other militias, like those operating in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders, are run from an operations headquarters in Jordan that coordinates their training and military activity and also funds them. But not all these militias obey orders from the Jordanian headquarters, and even those that do don’t necessarily stick to the missions assigned them.
Moreover, some of the most powerful militias are those Washington can’t or doesn’t want to help, for obvious reasons. One is the Al-Qaida affiliated Levant Conquest Front, formerly the Nusra Front. Another is Ahrar al-Sham, a coalition of well-armed radical groups that are still fighting, but mainly among themselves.
The realization that support for the anti-Assad militias failed to produce significant results on the ground persuaded Obama to limit his support to money and arms, and under no circumstances to send American soldiers into the field. Trump, who launched 60 missiles at the Syrian base from which Assad’s army may have used chemical weapons, ended his military involvement in the anti-Assad battle with that.
American forces will continue fighting the Islamic State, with massive help from the Syrian Democratic Forces, a militia comprised mainly of Kurds with a minority of Arabs. But responsibility for security arrangements in Syria, stabilizing the cease-fire in southern Syria, creating other de-escalation zones and, above all, steering the diplomatic process have officially been transferred to Russia and Iran.